How do we recover from the shocks and grief that life throws at us? Patrick Regan has some answers.
We often think about resilience as being the ability to ‘bounce back’ from life’s difficulties, in the way an elastic band is stretched and goes back into shape. I recently came across an alternative perspective that got me thinking. Chris Johnstone, in his book Seven Ways to Build Resilience, talks about the difference between a tennis ball and a tomato. If you squeeze a tennis ball it bends back into shape; if you throw it against the ground it bounces back. In contrast, do the same to a tomato and all you get is a mess. Johnstone points out that this is only one view of resilience. What happens if you bury a tomato and a tennis ball in soil? After a number of years, the ball will have started to decompose and be useless. On the other hand, given the right circumstances, the seeds in the tomato may have taken root and given birth to new life. You could find new vines ripe with fresh, juicy tomatoes. Johnstone says ’When adversity is followed by new growth, where we rise again but in a different form, we can think of this as bouncing forward.’1
The truth is that pain and trauma changes us, not just while we’re in the midst of it, but often for good. For some of us it’s a physical change: we suffer the loss of a limb or live with a degenerative condition that has a considerable impact on our day-to-day life and our ability to enjoy the things we once did. Some of us lose someone we love, and their presence leaves a huge gap in our life that no one else can fill. Often there’s a change in our hearts: we now know something of how painful life can be in a way we’d never experienced before. Our eyes have been opened and we lose something of our innocence.
We can’t ignore these things and pretend they haven’t had an impact on us, expecting ourselves to be the same person we were before. That will leave us constantly striving for the impossible and essentially sets us up for failure. We’re comparing our current self with one who has been through much less. Life leaves its scars, and I’ve always found it thought-provoking that, even in his resurrection body, Jesus still held the scars of earth (John 20:20,27).
So what if we thought about moving forward to a new way of being? I’ve been through some things these last few years that I would rather not have done, especially two debilitating leg operations that left me in agony for months at a time, taking me to my limit physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yet, in some strange ways, I don’t want to bounce back to the Patrick I was ten years ago; I don’t want to lose the lessons I’ve learned and the ways I’ve changed.
I have anxiety as a result of everything I’ve been through and have spent years praying for a miraculous cure. Now I’ve come to a place where I accept that it’s where I’m at today and I’m learning to manage it. When lockdown began, I feared I would spiral down, but the strategies I’d learnt over the years stood up to the test and showed me it didn’t have to be completely debilitating. While it has its challenges, I can see how anxiety can make me a better, more empathetic person, though I’m still getting my head around the fact that God is working in something as horrible as anxiety!
Most of us have heard of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is where a traumatic experience leaves us with symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, guilt, feeling on edge, isolated and withdrawn. But there is also something called post-traumatic growth, which resilience researchers describe as the way trauma and pain can leave us with positive effects. It can be defined as the ‘experience of individuals whose development, at least in some areas, has surpassed what was present before the struggle with crises occurred. The individual has not only survived, but has experienced changes that are viewed as important, and that go beyond the status quo’.2
Sometimes the terrible things that we have experienced leave us stronger, teach us important life lessons and shape our future. Though few of us would choose the path that includes difficulties, we can come through it as a stronger and better person, recognising it can teach us things and help us develop. At the end of every speaking engagement someone will come up to me to share their story; a story of disappointment, hurt and defeat. They’ll tell me how they’ve seen, sometimes years later, how God used their heartache and turned it into something beautiful. I often struggle when they start telling me what they’ve been through; I find it confusing that God didn’t stop their pain in the first place. But I also love hearing how God brings good out of even the darkest of situations, and am amazed at the human ability to keep going and find purpose in pain.
Acknowledging growth isn’t the same as saying everything is OK, it’s just pointing to the good that can come out of bad. It’s also important to say that if we can’t see growth, it doesn’t mean we’re a bad person; we haven’t failed. Often these things take many years, and it would be dangerous to suggest we gloss over the grief someone is experiencing and point to the positives that have come out of their experiences. We don’t move from a state of trauma and grief to a state of growth – the two can happen simultaneously.
Space for grief
That’s not to say that resilience is about looking at the positives, pretending the bad stuff isn’t there or doesn’t impact us. Quite the opposite – that can be incredibly harmful. We need to give ourselves the space to grieve and let go of the idea that resilience is a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude.
When my friends, Phil and Ellen, lost a baby at eighteen weeks into the pregnancy and then another at eight weeks, they felt isolated in their loss. Bravely they reached out and told friends they needed them. They wanted to acknowledge the loss and whilst they knew many would fear they didn’t have the words to offer, they said, ‘If words are too hard, just hug us.’ Though people fluffed their words, they tried and that meant the world. They were especially grateful for friends who let them grieve at their own pace, not expecting them to ‘move on’. The pain lives with them and they don’t expect to ‘get over it’.
Grief isn’t straightforward. I know I expect myself to neatly transition through it but then I feel like I get stuck or go backwards. As author Tanya Marlow says, ‘Grief is messier, it comes in bursts. It has its own timetable and doesn’t fit with what we want it to do. We want to plough a line through grief but it’s more like surfing; you’ve just got to keep afloat.’3
Another helpful illustration is imagining grief as a ball in a box where there is also a pain button.4 When you first experience grief the ball can feel so large that you can barely move without it hitting the pain button. It’s all-consuming and feels permanent. But, over time, the ball seems to shrink a little. It hasn’t gone, and every time it hits the pain button the agony is intense, but you can function a little more. As more time passes, the ball gets smaller and the times of pain are less frequent still; they may still have the power to take our breath away but there is more time to recover in between. For many, the ball and the pain never disappear completely; we carry elements of grief with us forever.
This illustration helped me see that instead of thinking of grief as something I would get over, it would change over time. Then, when I felt the intensity of loss, rather than beating myself up, I try and remember to be kind to myself.
It turns out kindness is key to resilience. One GP said, ‘Being well and healthy is a bit like rowing a boat. Illness or other kinds of problems can be thought of as crashing into a rock. Most approaches to tackle difficulties tend to focus on the rock… But the problem, or rock, is only half the story. The water level represents our background level of resilience. When we’re feeling good in ourselves, with our emotional reserves at a high level, we may float over the rocks that on a bad day we’d hit. When we’re feeling depleted, our water levels low, we’re more likely to crash.’5
What raises and lowers your water level? For most of us, being tired, stress, a bad diet and being too busy can lower the water level, while rest, relaxation and healthy relationships help bring it up. There will also be things that are more individual to us that bring us life. I found it really helpful to write a list to understand what helps and hinders me, and I’d invite you to do the same.
And my top resilience tip? Go gently. Give yourself the grace you would give to others. Think about what keeps your water level high and make it a priority.
1Chris Johnstone Seven Ways to Build Resilience (London: Robinson, 2019) p20
2Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004, quoted in trauma-recovery.ca/resiliency/post-traumatic-growth (accessed 16 November 2020)
5Chris Johnstone, Seven Ways to Build Resilience (London: Robinson, 2019) p47.
By Patrick Regan OBE, CEO of Kintsugi Hope, and author of Bouncing Forwards: notes on resilience, courage and change - available from www.kintsugihope.com